Five of the biggest charter school myths debunked

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According to U.S. Charter Schools, today there are currently more than 3,500 charter schools in 40 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, currently educating more than one million students. For those who may be unfamiliar, charter schools are public schools created with a contract (“charter”) with the local school board, which authorizes the school to operate with more autonomy than a traditional public school. Among them are high-achieving success stories like the Urban Prep Academy, an all-boys high school in Chicago where 100 percent of its graduating senior class has been accepted into college this year.

With the growth of the charter school movement since the 1990s to offer choice and accountability in public education, there are critics of charter schools. Five key myths that critics launch against charter schools are as follows:

Myth #1: Charter schools take money away from traditional public schools

Charter schools emerged due to the failures of traditional public schools. The Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter organization, states on its website: “Unlike traditional district schools, most charter schools do not receive funding to cover the cost of securing a facility. Conversion schools begin with established capital, namely the school and its facilities. A few states provide capital funding to start-up schools, and some start-up schools are able to take over available unused district space, but most must rely on other, independent means. Recent federal legislation provides funding to help charters with start-up costs, but the task remains imposing.” CER adds that, on average, charter schools are funded at 61 percent of their traditional public school counterparts in their district.

It is also not uncommon for charter schools to raise a significant portion of their operating funds from private donors, such as corporations, charitable organizations and individuals.

Myth #2: Charter schools take the best/most affluent students and the most motivated parents away from traditional public schools

Most charter schools accept any student who applies. When demand surpasses the number of available spots, a lottery is typically held. Depending on the state, there are regulations about the charter school reflecting its community’s demographic makeup.

Many charter schools specifically serve children from at-risk families. For example, only 4 percent of Urban Prep Academy’s Class of 2010 — 85 percent of who come from poor, black single mom households – was reading at or above grade level when they started in 2006. Promise Academy Charter Schools, a network of charter schools operated in partnership with the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York City, also serves mostly poor, black and Hispanic students.

Regarding parental involvement in charter schools, not only are there parents who would be motivated to push their children to excel under any environment. However, critics don’t consider the possibility that charter schools also turn previously neutral parents into highly motivated parents. After enrolling their children into a school of their choice rather than by government dictate based on geography, such parents may feel more empowered to get involved in their children’s education.

Myth #3: Charter school pupils fare no better than students at traditional public schools

A recent report shows that KIPP program students outperform their public school peers on reading and math tests. In places like Washington, D.C., charter school students – who now make up more than one-third of the city’s total public school enrollment and who mostly come from low-income backgrounds – are closing the educational gap vis-a-vis the national average on standardized tests and score significantly higher than their traditional public school counterparts on reading and math.

The National Bureau of Economic Research even found that the presence of charter schools as alternative competition also increased the performance of traditional public schools on statewide standardized tests.

Myth 4: Charter schools don’t have to meet the same accountability requirements as traditional public schools

While charter schools often don’t require teacher licensing or union membership, charter school teachers (per the No Child Left Behind Act) still must have extensive qualifications in the subject area that they teach.

Because of higher direct involvement with parents, charter schools are actually more accountable than traditional public schools. If a traditional public school fails to meet expectations, it remains in business. Not so with a charter school, which are regularly closed down and public funding ended if a critical mass of parents decide to enroll their children elsewhere.

Myth #5: Charter schools reinforce racial segregation.

Again, most charter schools take any student who applies (and hold a lottery if demand exceeds the supply of available slots) with many charter schools facing requirements that they mirror their community’s demographics. More importantly, this myth reinforces a notion that a majority-black school that black students can only learn with white students sitting next to them. Clearly the examples shown by Urban Prep Academy, Promise Academy, and their peers show that is far from the case. No wonder so many charter schools having enrollment lotteries and waiting lists!